By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 30, 2007
At a news conference at the end of a summit where the Arab leaders' peace plan was the main issue on the agenda, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Arab countries would establish normal ties with Israel as soon as it had resolved its disputes with its immediate neighbors.
"We cannot change the plan because it offers peace, and changing it would mean we're no longer offering peace," Faisal said, echoing Arab League chief Amr Moussa's insistence that there would be no changes in the plan ahead of negotiations.
But Faisal said: "Once Israel returns occupied land and comes to an agreement with the Palestinians, returns occupied land to Syria and comes to an agreement with them, and it resolves its land issues with Lebanon, Arab states will immediately establish relations."
Saud's comments seemed to allow room for discussion on issues that are particularly problematic for Israel, including the final borders of a Palestinian state and the plan's call for a right of return to present-day Israel for Palestinians who fled or were forced out when the Jewish state was created in 1948.
"What we're saying is, accept the principle of land for peace, that it's the basis for future negotiations, then we can work out the details," said a former Saudi official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
"Israel is sincerely interested in pursuing a dialogue with those Arab states that desire peace with Israel, this in order to promote a process of normalization and cooperation," Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday. "Israel hopes that the Riyadh Summit will contribute to this effort."
Of the 22 Arab League members, only Egypt and Jordan have established full relations with Israel. Several other countries have low-level ties with the Jewish state.
The Arab initiative, first introduced in 2002 but later ignored, calls for a withdrawal by Israel from lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a Palestinian right of return.
For Israel, going back to 1967 borders would mean giving up the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he will not give up Israel's largest settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Saudi analyst Jamal Khashoggi said Faisal's comments Thursday were an elaboration of existing Saudi positions. "He has said publicly, 'What the Palestinians accept, we accept.' For example, if they accept the right of return for some of the refugees and compensation for the others, we will accept that. Same thing applies to the Lebanese and the Syrians. Even, for example, if the Syrians decide to split the Golan with the Israelis, it's a Syrian decision. We will consider that a peace agreement," said Khashoggi, a former adviser to the previous Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Arab League working groups will discuss the initiative with the United Nations and promote it internationally, officials said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the working groups should contact "concerned parties" to discuss the initiative. But Faisal said the Saudis would not be meeting with Israeli officials.
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem and staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.